Studies in Ezekiel No. 7


Ezekiel 7:1-27

Remember, we are in a long section of oracles or prophecies of judgment pronounced by the Lord against Jerusalem and the Jews remaining there, but preached for the benefit of the exiles already living in Babylon. These oracles of judgment are providing us the opportunity to construct, one piece at a time, a biblical theology of divine judgment.

Text Comment

v.2

The “four corners of the land” indicates the whole land, as “mountains, hills, ravines, and valleys” did in 6:3. No part will escape.

v.3

As we stressed last time, the Lord’s judgment is nothing other than the execution of justice. It is recompense for crimes Israel has committed. She will get only what she deserves.

v.4

As often said before, the point of no return has long since been reached. No more appeals will be made. Israel received plenty of those from the Lord and heeded none of them. Her repeated refusals have so hardened the hearts of the Jews that the die is cast. This is certainly a fact of human life often enough recognized. People do become incorrigible and no amount of correction and no appeal, no matter how well-meant, how sincere, how earnest, will do any good. “Three strikes and you are out” laws, for example, are an example of society’s recognition that there is such a thing as habitual offenders. They will not turn and society cannot turn them. Well the same reality, alas, is encountered in the spiritual realm.

v.7

We’ll return to this, but “the day” is the most important idea of this chapter and its prophecy. Ezekiel’s hearers knew what “the day” referred to: the day of the Lord long prophesied by Amos, Isaiah, Joel, Zephaniah, and others. Ezekiel is placing his prophetic ministry squarely in the long line of biblical prophets who warned Israel that there would be hell to pay if she did not repent and return to the Lord.

v.10

The remainder of the chapter will describe the appalling effects of the coming of the day of the Lord.

v.11

The reader of the Bible needs to grow accustomed to its generalizing form of speech and its repeated use of exaggeration for effect [hyperbole]. Here in v. 11 we read that “none will be left.” In v. 16 we will read of the survivors.

The image of the rod that blossoms is not entirely clear. It may refer to Nebuchadnezzar or other oppressive rulers who will grind Israel under their boot.

v.12

That is, the time for a buyer being happy because he got a good deal, or the seller to be sad that he parted with a treasured possession or, perhaps, only looking sad to convince the buyer that he got a good deal – all of the normal concourse of daily life will be forgotten as Judah is overwhelmed. The economic consequences of the Lord’s judgment will be catastrophic. What preoccupies them now – making money and spending it – will be utterly forgotten as they shuffle from their ruined city, their lives lying shattered behind them.

v.15

Sword, famine, and plague have already appeared several times as the three forms of death associated with siege warfare.

v.16

They can run but they can’t hide because the reasons for the disaster that has befallen them they carry with them wherever they go: viz. their own guilt and God’s anger toward them on account of their rebellion.

v.17

People will be overwhelmed and powerless; psychologically devastated as in v. 14 earlier.

v.19

Much wrongdoing is economically based. People sin to get rich; they abuse others to aggrandize themselves. But God can’t be bought and when his judgment falls, the rich suffer as well as the poor and, in the nature of the case, lose more. No one’s wealthy in the cemetery! Money is one thing that will not help you with God! When warfare devastates a land and people all the money in the world can’t help you. You can’t buy bread if there is no bread! But, more important, you can’t buy peace with God. Verse 19 is very like Zeph. 1:18, delivered some years earlier than Ezekiel’s message recorded here in chapter 7.

Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath.

v.22

That the Lord would turn against his own temple was one of the promised consequences of unfaithfulness to God’s covenant (Lev. 26:31).

v.23

Jerusalem remained in God’s eyes a city of violence and bloodshed. In these years before 586 B.C. for the better-off in Jerusalem life was not unpleasant. The Babylonian threat kept the client ruler Zedekiah in line and the pax Babylonia allowed the unscrupulous to exploit the poor, to drive small landowners off their land by loaning money at very high rates of interest and then foreclosing when they couldn’t pay, and by paying little to their tenant farmers who had no other place to go for work.

“Chains” suggests captivity and exile. They who grabbed the land with no thought of others will lose everything they gained.

v.26

People will be desperate to know what to do, but heaven will remain silent. This is an interesting verse for what it reveals about the offices of prophet, priest and elder in ancient Israel. The priest was our modern preacher or minister and the elder was a ruler, an advisor. You may be aware that the so-called “two-office” Presbyterian church government argues that the eldership is a single office (beside the office of deacon) and that ministers and lay elders hold the same office but divide up the responsibilities practically, that is, according to the giftedness and willingness of individual men. This is not what the Bible teaches. Priests are one thing; elders are another, even if they can both sometimes be called “elders” as they were in first century Judaism. Elder was the embracive term for all church leaders but it referred to men who held quite different offices and did quite different things. So in first century Judaism both priests and lay rulers were called “the elders of Israel,” but no one thought this meant that priests and elders had the same office. What one got from priests was teaching and the leadership of worship; what one got from elders was “counsel.” This word “counsel” is the Hebrew term esa and it is an important and interesting word.

The first instance of its use in the OT is in Exodus 18:19. You remember that incident. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, observed the way in which Moses was exercising his leadership of the people and immediately detected a problem. Moses was trying to do everything. He was hearing every case, every complaint, every request for advice. So Jethro asked him: “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning to evening?” Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.” [18:14-16] Jethro then replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice…”

That word advice is our word esa, the word rendered “counsel” in Ezekiel 7:26. Jethro’s counsel to Moses, if you remember, was to appoint some able men, men who fear God and who hate dishonest gain, and share the ministry of oversight, judgment, and rule with them. The eldership existed before this as a feature of the life of family and clan. But it is at this moment, in Exodus 18, that we may begin to speak of the elders of the church, of elder as an ecclesiastical office. Jethro gave wise counsel to Moses and the result of that counsel was the establishment of an office of counselor in the church. And from that time on that was the elder’s role: he was an advisor and a counselor of the people of God.

Now, you notice that the term elder almost never occurs in the singular in the Bible. Except in places where individuals are referred to or refer to themselves as an elder, are identified as holding the office, or where the qualifications of an elder are listed, the term universally occurs in the plural. Elders give their counsel, by and large, together, as a body. And the principle behind that is expressed in Proverbs 11:14:

“For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure.”

That word “advisers” is another form of our word counsel. Many counselors make for victory in life and the counselors of all counselors for Christians are elders. And why? Precisely because of what the word “elder” suggests. It is the word “old man.” But the accent on age is not an emphasis on the number of a man’s years per se, his chronological age, but upon the assumption that a man has lived long enough to acquire wisdom, has walked with the Lord himself long enough to have gained understanding, has studied his Bible long enough to have gained some mastery of its teaching and the way to apply it to the issues of life, has practiced his faith long enough and through sufficiently varied circumstances that he can advise or counsel another Christian with wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, authority, and spiritual savoir faire. He knows the ropes. He has been around the block. He knows what ought to be done in a specific situation, he can detect the pitfalls in someone’s plan, he can see through to the spiritual issues in someone’s behavior and find the proper way through a particular ethical question.

v.27

Not only do the prophets, priests, and elders have no help to offer, the King himself will be in mourning, distracted and useless to the people. So will the rest of the court and the people will realize that they are bereft of help. They have nowhere to turn.

“Life is not fair!” or so we often think and often say. When Courtney married last summer, I called my car insurance company to take her off our policy as married children cannot be insured on their family plan. I was, of course, expecting that as the number of insured drivers would be reduced from five to four I would realize some savings. In fact, my bill went up! Taking Courtney off the policy meant that one of the cars now had a young man instead of a young woman listed as its principal driver, and the additional charge for that more than made up for what I saved dropping a driver from my policy. Life is not fair!

And we notice this fact in a thousand other ways. We learned a few years ago that the world’s oldest woman, then a French woman 120 years of age, had been a smoker virtually her entire life. Or we sit at a restaurant feeling guilty about our small serving of French fries and watch two people, thin as rails and fit as a fiddle, down double quarter-pounders with cheese, large fries, and a gigantic chocolate milk-shake. Then there are our friends who often, if not always, speed but never seem to get a ticket; but we, who usually don’t speed, get a ticket, so it seems, whenever we do.

And, much more seriously, the catastrophes of the world and of individual human life fall, so it seems, so indiscriminately. The most devastating volcanic eruption of the 20th century, occurred on Sunday morning, May 2, 1902 on the Caribbean island of Martinique when Mt. Pelée exploded, instantly wiping out the town of St. Pierre with its population of some 30,000 inhabitants. Do we suppose that the people of that quiet island town were more wicked than, say, the citizens of New York or Paris? Pompeii was corrupt enough, to be sure, like any modern city – the rich were exploiting the poor, there was a great deal of sex and violence in their entertainment, and so on – but when Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79 and destroyed that population – I’ve seen the cadavers on display, people caught by the pyroclastic cloud and then buried in ash – it is not obvious that the Pompeians were more worthy of destruction than, say the citizens of Rome itself.

And, of course, as we well know, the same questions can be asked of catastrophes today. Why 9/11 or the earthquake in Pakistan or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean? Why those people and not others, why then and not fifty years ago or fifty years hence?

All of these questions are raised in our text by the fact that Ezekiel links his prophecy to the long tradition of prophesies concerning the day of the Lord. As far back as Amos, in the middle of the 8th century B.C. we have predictions of this coming day. The phrase was apparently already in use before Amos because he refers to it as an expectation already in the minds of the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom. They thought that the day of the Lord would be a day of great blessing and prosperity for them. They thought that the day when Yahweh drew near to them would be a day when he would demonstrate how favored are the people whose God is the Lord. But Amos disabused them of that expectation. Because of their sin and their rebellion, because of their violation of Yahweh’s covenant, the day of the Lord would be for them a catastrophe.

Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear…
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light – pitch dark,
without a ray of brightness?
[Amos 5:18-20]

Few believed him. Israel was experiencing almost unprecedented prosperity in those years and no one thought that doom was just over the horizon. But it was and Israel, a great and powerful nation for two centuries, ceased to exist in 721 B.C. Generations had been warned, but upon only one generation did the wrath of God finally fall.

And so it was with the southern kingdom of Judah. They too were warned of the coming day of the Lord. They witnessed the destruction of the northern kingdom. They heard of the day of the Lord from Isaiah and Zephaniah, and now from Jeremiah and Ezekiel. But the years passed and nothing happened; at least nothing catastrophic. There may have been portents, but life went on.

And now Ezekiel uses throughout this chapter the language of immanence, of nearness, of the time of fulfillment. He doesn’t simply say that the day of the Lord is coming at some future time. He says quite emphatically that it is here! In the first 12 verses of our chapter the ominous verb “it has come” appears nine times! “The end has come!” The adverb “now” occurs twice more, in v. 3 and v. 8. The NIV’s “about to” in v. 8 weakens Ezekiel’s language. He says “I am now to pour out my wrath…” We also have “the day has arrived” in v. 12.

But, of course, it has not come! The last time reference we were given was at 3:16. That date is August 7, 593. The next time reference we will be given is in 20:1. That date is August 14, 591. So the oracle of chapter 7 falls somewhere between 593 and 591 and, in all probability, nearer to the former than the latter. So we are, when Ezekiel speaks so emphatically about the day of the Lord having arrived, we are still six years or so from the fall of Jerusalem.

True enough, the Babylonians had already twice imposed their will upon Judea and carried off significant numbers of Israelites to Babylon, but Jerusalem still stood and the people there carried on with life much as before. They certainly were not cowering in the prospect of immanent catastrophe.

“From what we can reconstruct about the time at which Ezekiel delivered this prophecy (about 592 B.C.) we can guess that one thing the Israelites surely thought that they had on their side was time. The exile of 598 was several years now in the past. Zedekiah had presumably not openly shown any signs of rebellion against Babylon, if he had even thought in that direction [as he eventually and so foolishly would]… It would have seemed unlikely to the casual [observer] that anything could happen in the near future to break the calm that prevailed. Babylon was stably in control of the Fertile Crescent, including Palestine, or so it seemed. Few people would be looking for a change, [still less] an ‘end.’”
[Stuart, 78]

But here was Ezekiel saying that the end had arrived, that the day of the Lord was here!
The language of immanence that Ezekiel employs is to emphasize the certainty of the fulfillment, its inevitability, and its drawing nearer and nearer. But the people in Jerusalem and Ezekiel’s hearers in Babylon were afflicted with the same temptation: either to believe that the Lord would never do anything about their sin – because he hadn’t for so long – or to believe that the Lord’s judgment was reserved for some distant fulfillment at the end of the world, an event too far in the future to have any relevance for them in their own day. So Ezekiel addresses the problem with this striking language to the effect that the day had dawned, the judgment was here, the end was upon them.

When we come to the New Testament we find precisely the same problem being addressed and addressed in precisely the same way. We read in 2 Peter 3:3-7:

First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Every since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

Peter reminds us that the day of the Lord is promised in God’s Word and thus absolutely
certain. It will come. And he reminds us that the Lord has not left us without a witness to this coming judgment. There have been many judgments throughout history that portend what is to come at the end of the age. The flood was one such judgment, so that of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so Israel’s destruction in 721 and Judah’s in 586 B.C. So also Jerusalem’s second destruction in A.D. 70. Just as eternal life breaks into this world of time and history – when a person is born again and begins to live forever even in his or her mortal body – so eternal death breaks into this world of time and history when God judges his people or a nation for their sins. Indeed, the distinction between the end of time and the present is, in some important ways, a false distinction. God’s judgment falls upon people in this world as part of and as an anticipation of his judgment of all men at the end of the age. He is already a judge and already judging in time and history, even if not so completely or perfectly or absolutely or finally as his judgment will be rendered at the end of time.

And the apostles of the Lord emphasized the certainty, the inevitability, and the effective immanence of the judgment of the Lord by doing what Ezekiel did, speaking of it as if it were here, or very nearly here; as if it were upon us at this moment. They spoke of his coming “in just a very little while,” of his coming “quickly,” they said that the “God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet,” they told us to wake up because the hour has come [Rom. 13:11], they said that the Lord’s coming was “near” [Jas. 5:8; Phil. 4:5] and so on. Future events are spoken of as present, sometimes even as past – as our resurrection in Romans 8:30 – to indicate how certain and inevitable they are.

Not many, even among believers in Christ, are looking for the end. No matter the occasional disaster that ought to serve as a portent of the Lord’s judgment, people, by and large, expect tomorrow to be like today and for nothing to intervene to bring an end to their daily lives, however sinful, selfish, sensual, and irreligious their lives might be. The people of both Pompeii and St. Pierre preferred to ignore the portentous smoke pouring out of the volcanoes’ mouths in the days before their catastrophic eruptions. And today housing prices in San Francisco and southern California prove that most are betting against the “big one” no matter the almost unanimous predictions of seismologists. [M. Mailloux, Missionary Letter, March 7, 2007]

Not many are anxiously awaiting the day of the Lord. Few indeed are preparing for it. But the end draws near nonetheless and with it the same divine wrath against ungodliness and unbelief that has always accompanied his acts of judgment in human history. Lack of preparation for this is a sad reality of human history. Our Savior taught us that it would be a sad reality right up to the very day of his return, the end of history, and the final judgment of the last day. He also used the flood as an illustration of how inured people can become, how unwilling to believe that anything as cataclysmic as divine wrath could befall them. So it was in Ezekiel’s day; so it is in ours.

When Ezekiel said that the day of the Lord had arrived he meant it was inevitable and could not be forestalled. It was, in fact, still six years or so in the future. But so far as its certainty was concerned, it was already here!

Here then is another piece of our doctrine of divine judgment. It is a long time in coming! It has been promised in the Word of God. It is, therefore, a certainty. But it does not come apace. Years, decades, even centuries may pass with nothing that could be certainly identified as the sort of large-scale disaster that would qualify as the day of the Lord. True, from time to time, there are anticipations of this day of judgment, but only some people are affected and afterwards life goes on as before. People no doubt shuddered at the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii as they did much later at 9/11 or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, but recent history has taught us again that people get over their disquiet and anxiety quickly enough. In the same way the Jews trembled for a moment at the two deportations to Babylon of some of their leading citizens, but once the caravan had left the city and was out of sight, life returned in large part to normal. The shop had to be opened the next day, after all; the fields had to be planted or harvested; the pretty girl next door wooed and wed. The ancient city seemed as solid and indestructible as ever. The Judgment Day delays! And because it delays men draw the conclusion that it will never come.

This is the single greatest error of mankind! They confuse God’s patience with indifference and the delay of his coming judgment with its non-existence. People everywhere do this. They remain confident that they can trust economic activity, military force, wealth, or their leadership to gain them peace, safety and prosperity. But here in Ezekiel 7 we are told that each one of those idols would prove utterly powerless before the wrath of God. [Eichrodt, 105] This is the great and terrible truth you know about so many people you meet. You know, but they do not, that God’s wrath is certainly coming.

Lord, lay some soul upon my heart
And love that soul through me;
Any may I nobly do my part
To win that soul for Thee.
And when I come to the beautiful city,
And the saved all from around me appear,
I want to hear somebody tell me,
“It was you invited me here.”